Andrew Osmond weighs the pros and cons…
“This is definitely one of the most extreme things I’ve ever seen… This kind of takes the cake!” says American voice-actor J. Michael Tatum on one of the episode commentaries for Shigurui Death Frenzy. No disrespect to Afro Samurai, a fine series, but Shigurui Death Frenzy is a samurai show from a very different, and far more frightening, planet.
As the Anime Encyclopedia notes, Afro Samurai can be seen as a successor to Kill Bill, in which violent anime was specifically made for a foreign audience. Indeed, Afro Samurai didn’t even have a Japanese voice-track. Shigurui Death Frenzy is at the opposite extreme. It’s an anime that’s hard to imagine being made, at least by a big commercial animation studio, anywhere except Japan. It’s an uncompromisingly “hard” watch, and shamelessly extreme – a man rips his own guts out in the first minutes. But it’s just as shamelessly artistic, or “arty,” aimed at viewers with a taste for stately narratives, still images, deferred gratification and style as king. It used to be said that the main audience for violent anime was teens swilling beer and curry on a Friday night. The ideal audience for Shigurui Death Frenzy would be Hannibal Lecter, tucking into a fresh liver and fava beans with a fine chianti.
The story takes place in the civilised barbarity of seventeenth-century Japan. It’s a tale of trainee samurai, with much of the action taking place in their wooden “dojo” home, ruled over by their ancient and terrible master swordsman, Kogan. When Kogan makes his first appearance, he looks like some ghastly Frankenstein monster, drooling and pissing; but in his periods of lucidity, he’s utterly lethal. Two rival male students compete to be his heir: Fujiki, a rising star of the Kogan dojo, and Seigen (voiced by Tatum in the dub), who just shows up at the door one day and asks for a fight. Two beautiful women are woven into the drama; Kogan’s mistress Lady Iku, who’s enticed into a forbidden relationship with Seigen, and Kogan’s daughter Mie, whom the patriarch sees as a vessel for his legacy.
As a drama, Shigurui Death Frenzy has parallels with Berserk, particularly the 1990s TV anime version. Both series are manga adaptations that adapt only a portion of the source material. Shigurui Death Frenzy is based on a fifteen-book strip by Takayuki Yamaguchi. Both series start with flash-forwards to later in their main players’ lives, though Shigurui Death Frenzy’s main story completes an “arc” in the final episode, rather than end with a maddening cliff-hanger like the TV Berserk! Both shows are sagas of lifelong ambitions, and jealousy, and self-destruction, and pitiless worlds where hate is the only lasting human emotion.
And yes, it’s a story of extremes of sex and violence. There are several scenes designed to provoke reactions of, “What is he doing… He can’t be… Oh, hell.” (The opening scene of The End of Evangelion was a classic of the form.) But it’s a distanced, clinical kind of extreme. As the people on the DVD commentary point out, Shigurui Death Frenzy is akin to the films of a live-action director like David Cronenberg in its clinical, neutral horror. One of the series’ recurring images, as in many anime, is of insects crawling and buzzing, and the series suggests a disinterested God’s-eye perspective that reduces humanity to a microcosmic level.
The series is overwhelmingly sparse, in dialogue, motion and colour. For readers who explore the fringes of anime, the slow, sometimes oblique storytelling is reminiscent of the stop-motion films by Kihachiro Kawamoto (though Shigurui Death Frenzy is infinitely more gruesome). It’s a series that reminds you that you’re watching drawings, spaced out very like comic-strip frames. The gushing blood and sausage-strings of intestine unnerve you less than creepier grotesqueries, like one samurai’s slit-wide mouth, or the wide fish eyes of another. The show was directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki, who has co-directing credits on Texhnolyze and the recent Steins;Gate. Also prominent in the credits is screenplay writer and art director Seishi Minakami, who scripted Paranoia Agent and Paprika for Satoshi Kon.
Shigurui Death Frenzy is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.